Wittgenstein is an astonishingly resourceful film. Originally intended to be a TV documentary, the project was expanded into feature length and became Derek Jarman’s penultimate film. By the time the film was being made, Jarman’s AIDS was well advanced and had left him virtually blind which would have been enough of a limitation by itself. Add the fact that virtually no money was available – about £250,000 - and a shooting schedule of two weeks, and it becomes surprising that the film was finished at all. But finished it was and the finished film is an unexpected delight.
The film is a biopic of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Born in 19th Century Vienna, Wittgenstein went to Manchester University and subsequently went to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell. Kicking against the whole discipline of philosophy, Wittgenstein aimed to solve the problems of the subject by focusing on the nature of language. Paradoxically, for someone who disliked philosophy so much, he has become known as the most distinguished philosopher of the 20th Century.
But it’s certainly a long way away from the traditional Hollywood biopic, although it does keep to a broadly chronological structure beginning with Wittgenstein’s childhood and ending with his death. But the genre in Hollywood tends to have been choked with solemnity, as a look at something like The Agony and the Ecstacy will confirm – just imagine what Jarman could have done with the story of that homosexual dwarf Michaelangelo! Wittgenstein, despite its serious subject matter, isn’t solemn at all. This is not a po-faced, self-consciously serious film; it’s playful and witty, with surreal moments involving the inimitable Nabil Shaban as a green Martian who challenges the young philosopher’s perception of his world.
The humour gives the film a feeling of lightness, a sensation which is enhanced by the gorgeous costume design by Sandy Powell. Since Jarman’s perception of colour was becoming limited due to his sight problems, the costumes are produced in bright, primary colours and the result is visually dazzling. The resourcefulness comes through in all sorts of ways. Given the single setting, changes in time and location are signalled through lighting, props, make-up and costume with Jarman making a virtue of simplicity. There is some deliberate use of anachronism here and there and occasional flights into outright fantasy – the martian for example – but the overall film is exquisitely controlled and one of Jarman’s most mature works.
The lightness of the atmosphere is also something of a relief after The Last of England and The Garden, films that I found unwatchable even as I admired the single-minded obsession behind them. Jarman’s preoccupations with authority and sexuality are present in Wittgenstein but they’re put into the background and the much-debated subject of Wittgenstein’s homosexuality is treated with a very gentle touch. His sexuality doesn’t become a political or social issue, being treated as another element of his personality which the philosopher uses to torture himself with. Jarman’s trademark use of male nudity is also virtually absent. These elements which seem to make it an atypical film for the director are particularly surprising given that Jarman rewrote Terry Eagleton’s script to make it more congenial to him. There are moments which remind one of Jarman’s interests, particularly his rather charming insistence on making all his male characters bisexual when, as in the case of Maynard Keynes, there doesn’t seem to much evidence to support it.
Karl Johnson gives a sensational performance as Wittgenstein, a role which is perfect for his hangdog face and edgy personality. I’ve often found Johnson to be an awkward presence on screen. Sometimes, as in Close My Eyes, this works to the benefit of the whole but when he’s expected to be part of the background in the TV series Rome, he sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. His Wittgenstein, however, is wonderful as a man who simply can’t blend into the seemingly congenial society of his intellectual equals and yearns to be a normal labourer – something which is denied to him even by the supposedly egalitarian Soviet Union. He captures Wittgenstein’s irritable perfectionism and arrogance, but doesn’t neglect his tenderness and sensitivity. It’s a great piece of acting and perhaps the high point, in performance terms, of Jarman’s career.
The rest of the cast does all that is expected of it and Jarman regulars such as John Quintin and Tilda Swinton have a great time embodying key figures of early 20th Century Britain. Quintin’s slightly camp Maynard Keynes is particularly touching, especially in his final scene when he gives Wittgenstein some very humanist last rites. Michael Gough adds distinction too, although he doesn’t have much to do as a self-amused Bertrand Russell, and his presence offers a reminder of the history of low-budget British cinema out of which Jarman first emerged.
The BFI’s DVD of Wittgenstein is a splendid package which gives you everything you could want, apart from one obvious omission.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.66:1 format. It’s a very good picture offering stunning colours - particularly pivotal to this film – and a generally decent level of detail. Softness is sometimes evident and the darker scenes show up some minor artifacting problems but, on the whole, this is a pleasing presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is excellent. The beautiful music soundtrack comes over very well indeed and the dialogue is eminently clear and crisp.
There are a number of extras, the only omission being any material on the historical Wittgenstein which would have been useful to contrast with Jarman’s portrayal. Otherwise, everything on the disc is relevant and interesting. There are meaty interviews with producer Tariq Ali, Karl Johnson and Tilda Swinton which fill in production details with admirable simplicity. The sense of love and admiration for Derek Jarman is palpable throughout. Swinton’s interview is particularly valuable because of her personal relationship with the director.
We also get about twenty minutes of behind-the-scenes footage which comes in six parts and offers a picture of the director which emphasises his humour and his skill at getting the best out of minimal resources. There’s a small stills gallery and a brief but eloquent introduction to the film from the admirable Ian Christie.
Most interesting of all is a short film called The Clearing which runs 7 minutes and stars Derek Jarman. This is shot on Hampstead Heath and consists largely of a single Steadicam take as Jarman, unseen until the end, walks through the woods and encounters a variety of characters ranging from a fetishist to a mother having a picnic with her child and asking the unseen wanderer to sit out. Finally, he comes upon a saxophonist in a clearing and, right at the end, we get to see Jarman. This is shot on film in black and white and is quite hypnotic. The director, Alexis Bisticas, has made only one film since which I haven’t seen.
Mention should also be made of the excellent booklet accompanying the disc which contains an essay from Colin McCabe , a biography of Jarman, and an interview with Sandy Powell.
The film has optional subtitles as do the extra features.
This BFI disc is an excellent presentation of a thoroughly enjoyable film. Highly recommended.